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Educator Asks Colleges to Take Fresh Look at Helping Freshmen

February 05, 1988|DONNE DAVIS | Donne Davis is a free-lance writer from Arcadia.

Do you remember your first year of college? If you were typical of most freshmen, you've probably tried to forget those memories of feeling lost and alone--overwhelmed in a maze of new responsibilities without anyone to show you the ropes.

That is changing, though, because of a growing movement among colleges and universities to improve the freshman-year experience. Leading that movement is John N. Gardner, 43, a self-appointed spokesman for what he calls "the largest educational minority" in the country--namely, 3 million American college freshmen.

Why this new attitude?

"If colleges don't start making more of a commitment to their freshmen, they'll go somewhere else," Gardner said last week at the second annual Western Conference on the Freshman Year Experience, held at the Irvine Hilton. The conference was co-hosted by UC Irvine and the University of South Carolina, where Gardner has established the National Center for the Study of the Freshman Year Experience.

"With increasing competition among colleges for a declining pool of eligible students," Gardner said, "universities need to hold on to the students they have.

"In the best of all possible worlds," Gardner told the gathering of 450 educators from around the country, "freshmen would be treated with respect and dignity. They would not be hazed. They would take courses from some of the best faculty, be provided with conscientious advising and career planning, be introduced to campus resources, taught some basic college survival skills and know that the leadership of their university has made a commitment to helping them succeed. A good freshman-year experience is when students are told in advance what they're going to get, and then the institution takes concrete steps to deliver what's been promised."

Another important responsibility of colleges, Gardner believes, is to identify all the potential variables that can interfere with a student's success and then make sure they've responded to those variables--for example, making sure students know how to take notes, use the library and learn healthy life styles, and then educating them to make informed and intelligent choices.

For most universities, initiating some of these concepts would mean unlearning a lot of attitudes fostered in graduate schools--that undergraduates aren't really very important, particularly freshmen, because they have the least knowledge and therefore the least status.

"People should be respected for their potential to acquire knowledge, and the fact that they don't have it yet is not entirely their responsibility," Gardner said. "What counts is what they do after they get to college, not what they hadn't done before."

Still, the reality for most freshmen today, Gardner said, is that they are more likely to be given the worst housing, if any, the last registration and offered courses taught by inadequately trained undergraduate teaching assistants. This subtle form of hazing, he said, may partially account for the nation's high college dropout rate of 40%.

"What we're trying to do is reverse an 800-year-old tradition that the entering college student has no dignity. They were not worthy of respect and so they had to be put through a series of ritualistic practices that humiliated them. The thesis behind this was that if you take a new group of arrivals and oppress them, you generate cohesiveness and esprit de corps. The problem is that if we take these students and hassle them, they'll go somewhere else, and most colleges can no longer afford to lose their students."

Gardner has been interested in freshmen since he began teaching at the University of South Carolina in 1970. That same year, his school created the first freshman orientation course, University 101, a three-credit, one-semester course designed to teach freshmen some basic college survival skills, such as study techniques, constructive ways to relate to peers and professors and how to use college resources. Since then, and especially in the last few years, the course has been copied hundreds of times. A survey conducted by the American Council on Education indicates that approximately 80% of the nation's colleges and universities now have some form of freshman orientation program.

Gardner was asked to administer the University 101 program, and after seven years in that role he said he thought it was time to gather other educators to share their knowledge on the freshman-year experience. In 1982, the University of South Carolina hosted the first National Conference on Freshman Orientation Course.

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